In this and the subsequent two editions that are launched simultaneously on the newly upgraded web-site, Nurturing Justice publishes an exposition of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapters 9 to 11. I’m doing this to suggest an interpretation that must have radical significance for how Christianity is understood. This suggests that this difficult section of Paul’s letter has everything to do with loving our neighbour with public justice. This passage finds it very crucial culmination in the admonition of Romans 12:14-21 – Paul is encouraging those to whom he writes to see themselves as the people of the Messiah of Israel, the Person who the prophets proclaimed would rule all the princes of the earth. How then are they to live? How then are they to “love their neighbours”? Paul’s account of how this Gospel has conquered him is of decisive importance for how those who believe this same “good news” are to “do politics”. Cannot Paul’s good news also help us to see ourselves in a fresh way and shed many of the traditionally-endorsed Christian presumptions that hinder Christian political service?
Readers who might wish to read the complete commentary on Romans are invited to write and request it.
What I say, in Christ, is the truth and no lie. My conscientious awareness in the Holy Spirit is that my grief is overwhelming, my heart is in constant [twisted] pain. For [in actual fact] I might have been praying a curse on myself over against Christ, for my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh, for they are Israelites to whom is the adoption [into the family] and the glorious heritage, the covenants, and the custodianship of the law, and the worship and [all] the promises. These are those [descendents] of the Patriarchs from whom the Christ [is to come] according to the [same] flesh. To the One God over all, be praise henceforth, AMEN.
But not of course [that] God’s word has failed. For not all from Israel are of Israel. Likewise, not all of Abraham’s seed are his [specially designated] children. “But in Isaac shall your seed be surnamed”. That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God but the children of the promise who have been identified as seed.
For this is how the word of promise reads: “At this time I will make good with a son to Sarah” And not only there, for recall that Rebecca was bedded by this one, Isaac, our father, and before the [twin] children were born, having worked neither good nor ill, in order that God’s designated purpose might be carried on, was told, putting the emphasis not on works but on the one who calls, “The greater shall serve the lesser” and so it has [also] been written, “Jacob I have loved; but Esau I hated.”
What do we [then] say to this? That God is unjust? No way! For to Moses He has [already] said [for us]: “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy; and I will pity him whom I will pity.” So then it is not [a matter] of whomever may desire, nor of one actively pursuing but this is all about the One on whom God shows mercy. For the scripture records [thus] to Pharaoh: “For this very reason I have raised you so that I may show forth my power in you and so that my name shall be publicly announced throughout all the earth”. Therefore, He has mercy on whom He choses. And He hardens whom He will.
And so you may [want to] say: Why does he yet find fault? Who can ever resist his counsel?
Oh man! [Don’t miss the point! The question ought to be] Who are we [SU ref. SE in 8:2] to [presume to] cross-question God? Will that which has been moulded thus inquire of the one moulding it: “Why have you made me like this?” Doesn’t the potter have power to make from the same lump vessels for high status and those for lesser use? So what if [we were now to say] God was purposely seeking to show forth his anger by making known His capability [to wreck vengeance at the same time that he] indulged with great patience these vessels of [His] anger which [had become] by their resistance were fit [only] for destruction, and that [all] this was in order that he might make known the riches of His glorious status for [those] vessels singled out for His mercy, which He had previously set aside for that purpose, whom He surnamed, [that is] us, not only Jews but also the Gentiles?
And He also says in Hoseah: “I will call them my people those who were not my people; and the one previously lacking love shall surely be belovéd.” “And it will come about that in the very place where it was said of them ‘You are not my people’ they will be greeted with [nothing other than] ‘sons of the living God’.” Or consider Isaiah’s cries sent out all over Israel, “If the Lord Almighty had not left us seed, we should have become just like Sodom and we would have [well and truly] become indistinguishable from Gomorrhah.”
What then are we to conclude from all this: That the Gentiles, who did not pursue right-standing with God [in their way of life] have now been granted right standing on account of [their] faith; whereas Israel whose way of life was established [in order] to pursue right-standing [with their God] by the law of right-standing, did not arrive? Why? Because they sought such right-standing by [their] works. They stubbed their toe on the obstacle [placed in their path. As it is written: “Take note! I am putting in place in Zion a stone [obstacle] for stumbling, an offensive rock and the one who believes on Him shall not be put to shame!”
We could begin our comment here by noting the final assertion of this exposition. The Lord’s response to the tendency of His own chosen people to harden their hearts against Him, was to reveal to them that they should not be surprised to find His way offensive. Their hardness-of-heart did not take Him by surprise, not in the slightest. But to truly know His mercy they needed a first-hand experience that His purposes were not going to be thwarted. Christ Jesus, in His resurrection, provides this. And so this is Paul’s summation, having reiterated his deepest, wretched sorrow.
But why should he talk in this way, “as if to curse himself from Christ”, to cut himself adrift from the One who had turned him around by calling out:
Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?
The answer is this: Paul came to know just who his prayers had cursed, because the “cursed one” confronted him. And now Paul says that, in contrast with his former cursing, he is even prepared to curse himself for the sake of his Israelite brethren. Here is also his ongoing remorse about his former life, which provides an accurate picture of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah before Peter’s proclamation at Pentecost (Acts 2) of the Lord’s amnesty to all sinners, to all who have rejected Him. It is an ongoing part of his life in preaching the Gospel. He thought he was doing God’s work (7:9); but his curses upon those who believed in Christ had actually been his curse upon Christ Himself. But now his foul mouth had been shut; he had been stopped in his tracks. Jesus intervened to tell him Who was being persecuted. This can’t be stressed strongly enough. It’s crucial for understanding the entire letter. And I dare say it is crucial teaching for helping us understand our own lives, let alone the story of the Gospel’s proclamation ever since it first came to light.
I take it that Paul is now saying that he would even persecute himself for following Christ if that could serve his fellow Israelites by bringing them to their Messiah, his Lord. I guess he dares to put it this way because his new life in Christ compares so starkly with the curses uttered in his former life, curses which were to cease only through Jesus’ decisive intervention.
Paul professes his spiritual turnaround, even if his flesh is still suffering the deep trauma of being addressed directly by the One who fulfils all the promises given to Israel. Jesus has taken all curses upon Himself and so we here read Paul who no longer breathes murderous threats in any direction. And we should keep in mind that his former life was not unknown among the dispersed communities of Jew and Gentile believers he continued to visit after being sent on his way by Jesus!
This is Paul’s profession of faith as a chastened Jewish follower of the Ruler of the princes of the Earth. He has turned from persecuting and cursing Christ, purportedly on behalf of his brethren, to becoming instead a servant of these brothers and sisters by following Christ all the way. In this affirmation, Paul identifies completely with his own people (4-5) – Christ Himself, by His Spirit has breathed truth into his life and that is no lie (9:1). And this is simply about the true fulfilment of God’s covenant with Israel.
This is the way it has always been. Right-standing with God has always been by His promises; it has never been a matter of works of the flesh commending a person to God (6-13). Those who live by God’s promises are aware that this same power opens up a way of life to them. Faith grants right-standing but we are completely and utterly dependent upon His sovereign, merciful intervention in our lives (14-18). God’s purposes prevail and can be seen by faith despite the hardening that occurs for those who persist in resisting His mercy. It is not down to human will, or desire (16), just as John also says in the prologue to his Gospel (John 1:13). And the scriptures record that Pharaoh’s persistent hardening was only confirmed by the Lord after the 6th plague (Exodus 9:12). God’s glorious purposes in dealing with Pharaoh were made clear enough to him. Paul is drawing attention to the Lord’s capability to judge (to wreck vengeance on those who oppose Him) while at the same time drawing attention to the fact that He has endured such presumptuous resistance with great patience in order that he might make known the rich bequest (the glorious status) He confers upon the “vessels singled out for His mercy”, those called to the restoration of His Image in Christ Jesus (22-23).
And here, Paul notes, many will be provoked to instinctively retort:
Well in that case …? What’s the point? Why does he yet find fault? Who can resist His will?
In other words:
If I’m not in charge then I might as well leave it to the divine throw of the dice? Heads or tails? Heads I lose. Tails fate wins.
Keep in mind we are dealing here with Paul’s account of what God has done to sovereignly deal with sin, and the consequences of sin, the way of life lived according to the flesh which confronts death. And so he proceeds to rule out that bogus line of presumptuous logic.
We are dealing here with Paul’s proclamation of how God the Lord has decisively breathed new life through Christ into the mortals whom He created to carry His image and to be the very representatives of His glory. We are dealing here with Paul’s recognition of God’s complete sovereignty in creation and redemption. He enjoins his readers to go with him to view Jeremiah’s potter (20-23). But any suggestion that the distinction between high status vases and the menial pots is the way to understand how Jew should relate to Gentile is decisively countered by facing up to the Gospel’s revelation that confirms we are all of one lump (24). The trip to view Jeremiah’s potter simply reminds us of God’s creative and redemptive power, the breath that gives new life in the Spirit to God’s Image-bearer, despite any inherent resistance or hardening by the clay to the Potter’s persistent working and re-working.
And then, for us Gentiles, the story becomes very interesting indeed. Those who have not hitherto been numbered with those carefully formed and nurtured for high status use by the potter, those who, in the story as previously told, are prone to live as objects of God’s anger, are now called to see themselves in a completely new light. That anger has been stayed by His own long-suffering in Christ. New life has been breathed into us, Jew and Gentile, whomever the Lord may call.
Those who were not my people the Lord will call my people.
Those qualified to frequent the outer court of God’s temple, that place where Gentiles were specially invited to gather, now learn that they too have received the surname of the Lord Almighty. Without the promise of the Lord, without the seed that the Lord had promised, Israel was in deep trouble, as perverse and ready for destruction as were the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Paul’s sums it up: the Jews, Paul’s kinsmen, received this promise as their inheritance but they did not receive its fulfillment when they presumed they could work to show they deserved God’s Fatherly mercy to them. That is one side of the story. The other side is this: the Gentiles, who know pretty well that they were not part of God’s historical work with Israel, have now, by their faith in Israel’s Messiah, received right-standing with the Lord.